Respect Your Elders

Paul Hetzler, Extension Educator

Elders have been essential to human survival throughout the ages, handing down learned knowledge to the next generation. Handy tips like “This-here plant killed your great-grandpa. Don’t eat it.” But in the world of an arborist, elders are also an amazing species of shrub.

As someone who’s approaching elder status, I may get confused more often than I used to. But I’m adamant that elders should never be confused—with alders, that is. You know alders, those spindly, soft-wooded wetland shrubs common along streams. Known also as tag-alder or speckled alder, they confound hikers and fly-fishers by forming dense thickets. Just the same, alders are handy, as they’ll let you know where the poorly drained areas are. If you’re considering where to build your house or to site the garden, the presence of alders will tell you to move along.

And elders should not be confused with boxelders (yep, it’s one word), which are also called ash-leafed maples, California maples or “those !#*! weed trees.” Though they are the messy, weak-wooded poor cousins to the sugar maple, boxelders can yield a respectable syrup.

The elder that arborists know best is the elderberry. Well actually there are two species, the “real” one, black elder, and the (fortunately) less-common red elder, whose toxic berries ripen in mid-June. “Red, you’re dead; black, you’re alright, Jack,” is a saying I’ve heard, though it’s not clear if it applies to the general public or just those named Jack. Black elder, also called American elder, bears copious “umbrellas” loaded with tiny dark purple (almost black) berries that ripen in early September.

Elderberries are prized for both their culinary and medicinal uses. The flowers, which bloom in late June, are very palatable, and I can attest that the flat-topped flower clusters dipped in batter make tasty fritters. Some people dry the flowers for a sweet, soothing wintertime tea. The berries make wonderful jam and pie, and are famous for giving elder wine its exquisite color. Elderberries are low-acid, though, and need lemon juice or citric acid added to them when canning elder preserves, juice or whole berries.

For centuries, elderberries have been used to help assuage the symptoms of colds, coughs and flu. As medicinal plants go, the elder is not considered potent, but as it is a pleasant remedy to consume, no one complains. To start off with, elderberries have 35 mg. of vitamin C and 600 IU of vitamin A per 100 mg. of fruit. Research has shown that the berries as well as the flowers, are a mild anti-inflammatory.

Some claim that elder has a very slight diaphoretic action; that is, it helps induce sweating, although I’ve enjoyed elderberries for years and haven’t noticed that. There’s also a tradition of using a cold infusion of elder flowers as an eye wash to treat conjunctivitis. Clearly, more research is needed to investigate these and other potential applications for elder.

The elder has additional historic uses. The stems have a soft pith which can be easily pushed out to make a hollow tube. Native peoples and early settlers put these to use as maple spiles when gathering sap. The twigs and berries have have been used for dyeing cloth and other fibers. Plus, they’re easy to grow, and provide great food and cover for songbirds.

There are just so many reasons to respect our elders. Of all kinds.


Paul Hetzler
Horticulture & Natural Resources Educator
315-379-9192 x 232

Last updated August 2, 2016